KERRY HUBARTT: Abuse victims should keep coming forward, hold clergy accountable

Kerry Hubartt

The grand jury report that revealed decades of sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania adds to the litany of such heinous actions within the church nationwide.

But while the Catholic Church obviously has a long way to go to deal with what it calls a “moral catastrophe,” Protestant churches are facing the same crisis.

A recent article in the Washington Post entitled “The Sin of Silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church” has shown that Protestant churches across the country are also failing to protect victims of sexual abuse among their members. The story, written by former evangelical pastor Joshua Pease and also published in the Chicago Tribune, parallels the problems in the Catholic Church in many ways.

Certainly, the #MeToo movement has exposed sexual abuse and assault in various institutions throughout our country — entertainment, government, universities. But the assaults on children by leaders within the faith community are particularly troubling.

Churches are supposed to teach us how to live by Jesus’ example. But Pease points out that sin affects the community of faith — whether Catholic or Protestant — as well as the secular world, and when it is exposed it is often denied, ignored or even silenced.

“It has often led to failures by evangelicals,” Pease writes, “to report sexual abuse, respond appropriately to victims and change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place.”

How bad is the problem? The Associated Press reported that since 1950 more than 17,000 people nationwide have reported being molested by priests and others in the Catholic Church. The Pennsylvania grand jury uncovered 301 instances of priests who sexually abused more than a thousand (maybe thousands) of children since 1940.

But for the evangelical community, Pease writes, there is no hard data, due, in part, to the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism and the autonomy of local congregations. A 2007 report by the three largest insurers of churches and Christian nonprofits, said they received about 260 claims of sexual abuse against a minor each year. But those figures don’t include victims covered by other insurers, those older than 18, people whose cases weren’t disclosed to insurance companies and many who never came forward. By contrast, the Catholic Church was reporting 228 credible accusations per year.

An article in The New Republic last year pointed out that the potential scale of abuse within the evangelical community is huge since Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the U.S.

The article went on to say that over the previous five years, “it has become increasingly clear … that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church.”

Next to the often irreparable harm done to victims, the outrageous truth is that clergymen often get away with child sexual abuse because victims, their families and their church leaders are reluctant to say anything.

Some churches or Christian schools have covered up allegations of sexual assault and counseled victims to forgive their attackers. A New Republic investigation in 2014 found that officials at Patrick Henry College, a popular destination for Christian homeschoolers, “had routinely responded to rape and harassment claims by treating perpetrators with impunity, discouraging women from going to the police, and blaming them for dressing immodestly.”

The culture of fundamentalism promotes strict obedience to religious authority, according to The New Republic article. “Sex is not only prohibited outside of marriage, but rarely discussed. These overlapping dynamics of silence and submission make conservative Christians a ripe target for sexual predators.”

Thankfully, the curtain of silence is being pulled open, and more victims are finding the courage to come out of the shadows and hold their attackers accountable.

“Be sure your sin will find you out.” Numbers 32:23.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.